What Is Stress?
What Is Stress?
Dear Tacit,

Can you explain stress to me?  Why is it bad for us?

Signed: What is Stress?

Dear What Is Stress,

Stress is often defined as anything that requires us to burn energy in order to keep our internal systems (physical, mental, emotional) running smoothly.  It is sometimes explained as the condition or feeling that results when the demands being placed upon a person exceeds the personal and social resources they believe they have available (taken from http://www.stress.org/Definition_of_stress.htm).  It is also described as the body’s reaction to a change/challenge that requires a physical, mental or emotional adjustment or response.  Stress allows our brains to grow – we need it in our lives, as long as it has the proper balance and doesn’t exceed our ability to cope (remembering that coping can sometimes still be a challenge or feel uncomfortable).

In general, stress can be broken into 3 main categories.  There is Positive Stress (also sometimes known as Eustress), Negative Stress and Toxic Stress.  Believe it or not, we need some stress (positive stress) in our life, or we will find ourselves just as susceptible to anxiety and depression, a lack of motivation or low energy, and a feeling of being “lost” or just treading water (not moving in a direction that excites us) as we would experience if we were drowning in too much stress.

When we have the right amount of stress in our lives, the chemicals in our brain/body are usually nicely balanced.  We produce various types of stress hormones (adrenaline, cortisol, etc), but only in the amounts that benefit our ability to function.  With the right amount of cortisol, for example, our immune system is boosted and we are healthier; we are more physically coordinated; we are able to exercise creative thinking (and find out-of-the-box remedies to life’s little challenges); and we have the ability to be self-aware and introspective.  With the right surges of adrenaline, we boost pain resistance and strength; our blood supply is enriched (which can slow down the aging process); we develop a laser-focus and can create safety; and we maximize energy levels.

But when we find ourselves with negative or toxic stress, we overproduce cortisol, for example.  And it works against us.  Our immune system is compromised; we are less aware of our surroundings and often end up with more bumps/bruises than usual; we start to experience rigid thinking patterns (also known as tunnel vision) and our ability to see a situation through a global lens disappears; and the neuropathways to our prefrontal cortex get compromised, so we are unable to be as cognitively reflective and self-aware (even if we don’t realize it in the moment).

Excess levels of cortisol block the production of many other chemicals in our body.  Our happy hormones (serotonin, dopamine, endorphins, and oxytocin, for example) cannot be made in proper amounts, so even when we find ourselves in positive situations, we may not be able to fully feel the level of pleasure or happiness that results.  High levels of cortisol increase blood sugar (often felt through cravings for sweets or carbs) and suppresses appetite hormones; lower growth hormones and fat burning hormones; increase inflammation throughout the body; and block the production of our natural melatonin (which is essential for relaxation, and impacts our quality of sleep).

In some people, the part of the brain that receives the signal to make cortisol gets stuck “on”, even after a high stress period is over.  This might be because the person has experienced elongated periods of negative or toxic stress (and the high levels of cortisol have been habitualized as necessary).  Or it might be because of a traumatic stress occurrence that caused the messaging in the brain to read situations in the wrong way, from that point forward.  Many people become “normalized” to their levels of stress and have no idea how much excess cortisol is being produced in their bodies.

When the warning symptoms of excess cortisol grab a person’s attention, most people try to push through the challenges instead of listening to what their brain/body is telling them.  Instead of working towards a re-balancing of their system, they tune out red flags that pop up around them (physically, emotionally and mentally).  And this pattern of response begins to manifest new problems – like addiction issues, mental fatigue (brain fog – concentration issues, memory issues, etc), mental health problems (anxiety, depression, etc), violence, control issues, and constant chaos/crisis in everyday life.  It can be hard to feel true happiness in life; relationships will suffer; and it may become difficult to connect within/trust our own self.

But there are many ways to lessen our stress levels and reconfigure the balance of chemicals being produced in our brain/body.  All a person has to do is be willing to put some time into dealing with their stressful situations differently.  It is a relearning process (letting go of old ways of coping so new, healthier ways can be implemented).  But the human brain is designed to be in balance – it wants to exist with the right combination of stress hormones being produced.  So, the brain/body is very ready and able to make these changes.  It is normally just waiting for a person’s will to want to try.

Take care!

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